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A ray of light in the Manhattan blackout

The week before last, I went to New York for the day. Or so I thought.

When the lights flickered, then failed, I was in the basement of a store on the Upper East Side. As customers and employees filed upstairs toward the daylight, several of us laughed at the unexpected inconvenience, as though we had gotten caught in the rain without an umbrella. It was a wrinkle in an otherwise ordinary day, a story to share with my wife when I was back in Baltimore that night: By the way, guess what happened to me today.

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But once outside, I realized that the outage wasn't limited to one store, or even one block. It seemed unfathomable, but New York, the city that never sleeps, was unplugged. I had no way of knowing that this was the beginning of the Blackout of 2003, the largest electrical collapse in U.S. history.

I started walking to Penn Station. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, trains would be up and running by the time I got there. The farther I walked, though, the worse the situation sounded. I overheard someone say that Toronto, Cleveland, and Detroit were shut down, too. Another block or so later, I heard that the headquarters of Con Edison, the utility company, was on fire (although it actually wasn't).

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Suddenly, almost as quickly as the lights had failed, Lexington Avenue grew packed. New Yorkers streamed out of high-rises like agitated ants, only to stop and stare in disbelief at their unresponsive cell phones.

Swept up in the crush of people taking over the streets, I couldn't help but recall the similar scenes I had watched on a September morning two years earlier. There were helicopters overhead all over again, sirens and confusion in the streets. People pulled out their cameras to capture the mass exodus. They gathered on their stoops. Now that the blackout has been blamed on faulty infrastructure and traced to an Ohio power company, the fear of terrorism sounds melodramatic. But at the time, nothing was as unsettling as standing in New York on a blindingly bright summer afternoon while being in the dark.

AM radio provided the only link to the outside world. Any car or truck blasting news drew a crowd. Although the early reports were sketchy, they all but ruled out terrorism. The possibility that we had caused a massive electrical collapse on our own was oddly comforting. A twentysomething woman teetering on stylish spikes could get away with complaining, "I didn't have to walk this far on 9 / 11." And a construction worker could pass out miniature bottles of schnapps to his buddies: "Everybody pick a flava."

Everybody was rushing home or off to a bar -- women armed with bottled water, men in suit pants and T-shirts carrying their dress shirts, ties, and jackets -- and more enterprising New Yorkers on in-line skates, skateboards and scooters. It was a stampede. But where was I going -- to catch a train? Who was I kidding? Meanwhile, the tunnels had been closed, so escaping by bus was also out of the question. I was stuck in New York.

Where to go?

I didn't have enough money for a hotel. Even if I did, I wondered how much good it would do me, since most rooms these days have electronic locks. I had arrived that morning without cash, just credit cards. On an impulse, though, thinking I might need cab fare, I used an ATM at Penn Station. Later, as I waited to buy bottled water, I couldn't believe how close I came to being penniless overnight in New York.

Instead, I had $100 and nowhere to sleep. I knew several people in the city, but I didn't know their addresses or phone numbers. Besides, even though the public phones were working, the lines were too much. I entertained the idea of walking all the way to Brooklyn in the 90-degree heat in hopes of finding my sister-in-law's apartment. Then I remembered my friend Adam. He and his family had moved to Chelsea last year; I had visited them in December. I seemed to recall that they lived on 21st Street, but I wasn't positive. What if I had the wrong street? And hadn't he mentioned going away sometime this summer?

Four miles and 50 blocks later, the laptop in my computer bag had grown as heavy as a refrigerator. My shoulders were cramping. My shirt was soaked. But I thought I recognized the street. I asked around. No luck. One woman shouted from her window that she didn't know Adam from, well, Adam.

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It was almost 6:30. Night was approaching. I'd have to hike back to Penn Station and make do. Sleep on the floor with other stranded passengers, or maybe stay awake to keep watch over my laptop. It was going to be a long and dreadful night.

There was a time when I would have relished this sort of adventure. After college, I spent a year backpacking around Europe and embracing situations just like this. I'd arrive in a strange town with no sleeping arrangements and no map (did I mention that I left my New York map at home?). No problem. I slept on beaches in the south of France, in train stations in Italy, and, once, on a tugboat docked in Oslo, Norway. This was the point of the whole trip: to travel without a plan. To improvise my way across Europe.

But right now I wasn't in the mood for roughing it in New York. I wanted to be dozing off on the train back to Baltimore. I wanted my cell phone to work so I could let my wife know that I was tired but OK.

Then I heard a knock on a nearby window. I turned and saw a hand waving.

It was Adam.

"I had a feeling someone I knew was going to be stranded here," he said.

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A transformed night

I was right about his vacation. If I had arrived the following week, no one would have been home. Instead, in an instant, the Blackout of 2003 became a lot less daunting. I changed into one of Adam's clean T-shirts and ate an orange, my first food since that morning. I sat down and joined Adam and his 8-year-old, Isaac, for an animated game of poker, Texas Hold 'em, Isaac's new favorite game.

Before long, Adam's wife, Sadie, arrived home, thanks to two cabs and an exhausting walk across a crowded Brooklyn Bridge. Since there wasn't much in the fridge, we went looking for dinner. Unfortunately, the rest of Chelsea had the same idea. By 7 o'clock, traffic was still heavy, but the sidewalks had turned festive. The neighborhood diner was serving drinks, and the outdoor tables were hopping. The few places serving food, such as a nearby pizza shop and a gyro joint, were mobbed.

We gave up and opted for a home-cooked dinner, which consisted of Adam grilling anything that would have gone bad in the fridge. It was the best bacon and cheese hot dog wrapped in a tortilla shell that I've ever eaten. The wine wasn't bad either. We toasted as if we had planned the whole thing, a backyard cookout illuminated by a menorah, with background techno music provided by the blackout party heating up next door. Later, on my way back from using a pay phone to call home, I was reminded of summer camp and the darkness that envelops you on the way back to your cabin after a campfire. It was New York as I'd never seen it.

When I read about the blackout over the next few days, I realized just how fortunate I had been. I may have endured a hot night without air conditioning, but at least I slept in a bed, not the concrete steps of the post office across from Penn Station, as many people did. By the time I boarded a bus on Friday, I was weary, but I was going home. Back to Baltimore. Back to my wired existence.

Before the power grid buckled and broke, I couldn't imagine living without my gadgets, without the conveniences and comforts that tame so much of the world around us. But sitting in Adam's back yard that night, I didn't mind being unplugged for a change. No cell phone, e-mail, hot water, AC. It was amazing how good it felt to be stripped of them, to simply sit back and appreciate a day that had turned from grim to something else entirely, an experience as unstructured and freeing as a holiday. I went to New York for the day, and I wound up staying for the night. I can't think of a better place to have spent the great blackout.

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Chuck Salter, a senior writer at Fast Company magazine, lives in Baltimore.


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